Project Description

What Women Want in the Workplace – With Lauren Sayers and Dr Elizabeth Hill

How do we know what women really want in the workplace beyond the headlines, and how do we deliver it?

Today our host Genevieve Jacobs is joined by Dr. Elizabeth Hill,  Chair of the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney, and is one of the co-authors of Women and the Future of Work, the first report from the Australian Women’s Working Futures Project. We’re also joined by Lauren Sayers who works in the HR sector and she’s a member of the Australian Human Resources Institute Council here in the ACT.

For more resources, see our HR Breakfast Club resources below. If you have a topic that you would like us to discuss, we would be happy to hear from you, please contact us!

Some topics we cover:

  • How the future of work is discussed in the political arena
  • The future of work from a government perspective tends to focus on AI, drones and technology, but less attention has been paid to women in the workforce
  • The unique issues that women face in the workplace, and how these are dealt with
  • Surprising survey results from the Women and Future of Work research project
  • Feeling respected in the workplace is a key factor for the happiness of women in the workplace
  • The importance of workplace flexibility

Genevieve Jacobs: Hello, this is The HR Breakfast Club Podcast, I’m Genevieve Jacobs. Our focus is on the world of work in Australia with a legal spin. In each episode of the podcast, we look at HR issues that arise in the workplace and important information about how you might approach them. Our website is at If you would like to make contact with some questions, we can respond to those as well, keep you updated on recent developments.

This time, we’re looking at what women want. Now, there’s plenty of discussion about everything, from flexible work practices and high equality to women in boardrooms, but what do Australian women really want from their workplace? There’s some very interesting new research from the University of Sydney’s Business School, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the key things turns out to be respected. We’ll have a look at the results of that work and ask how well the Australian HR framework delivers for women in the workplace.


How do we know what women really want in the workplace beyond the headlines, and how do we deliver it? Dr. Elizabeth Hill is Chair of the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney, and she’s one of the co-authors of Women and the Future of Work, the first report from the Australian Women’s Working Futures Project. I’ll give you a reference for that report at the end of our discussion, it’s well worth a read. We’re also joined by Lauren Sayers who works in the HR sector and she’s a member of the Australian Human Resources Institute Council here in the ACT.

Thank you, guys, for being with me.

Lauren Sayers: Thank you for having me.

Dr. Elizabeth Hill: Thanks for having us.

Genevieve: Dr. Elizabeth Hill, let’s start with your parameters. What did you want to establish with your report? What was necessary about doing the work here and now in the Australian workplace?

Elizabeth: There’s a number of things that lead to us thinking about this particular project. Firstly, as many as of your listeners will know, recent Australian governments have made a lot- said a lot about the need for gender equality and certainly Australia has been later in terms of the G20 process of pushing for an increase in women’s workforce participation both within Australia and around the world.

If you think about the interests of Australian governments and more broadly movements globally, there’s been an enormous amount of conversation and glossy reports pushing this agenda for gender equality in the workplace. At the same time, there’s been the evolution of the future of work debate. One thing that we were really mindful of as researchers in this kind of space was that that debate tends to really focus on robots, AI, drones, and there’s very little attention paid to women and the future of work.

We’ve felt that there was a need to bring these two kinds of movements together, and to think about and get some data on what young Australian women think about the future of work. What are their aspirations, their expectations, et cetera? We were really mindful that the voices of young women are just not part of these debates; either their workforce participation debate or the future of work debate so we wanted to really hone in on young women and put their voices, their experience, aspirations, and expectations at the center of our data collection. That was largely because young women are the future of work in Australia and it was time that we paid them some attention.

Genevieve: We should recall too, Elizabeth, that there are important legal parameters here. We begin with the Fair Work Act, but there’s also the Workplace Gender Equality Act, there’s the Sex Discrimination Act, there’s a number of other legislative guidelines about establishing equality in the workplace. They mandate, sometimes, affirmative action strategies and policies in relation to at least one gender equality indicator. It’s not just it being the right thing to do, to nod towards equality, there are actually obligations incumbent on employers, aren’t there?

Elizabeth: Australia is well served by our legislative framework compared to many other countries, but the fact is Australian women and men still do not participate in the labour market as equals. Employment and economic outcomes remain unequal and highly gendered, reflecting the stark differences between women and men’s rates of participation, their pay, their hours of work, their contribution to unpaid labour in the home, and patterns of occupational and industrial segregation. This is something that we have not solved yet.

Genevieve: Lauren Sayers, let me bring you in. Here we are in 2018. Is there still a gap in what we know about women in the workplace and what they want out of their careers and employment? Are there still significant areas that we’re not really fully across?

Lauren: Look, I think there are definitely still gaps. Different organisations, obviously different sizes, different industries, where we’re going to continue to see them for years to come. I think it will take time. I think there is a lot of different lenses that different women have, it’s your cultural background, your stage in life; it’s all going to, I suppose, paint a different gap depending on the organisation that you’re based within. Some organisations are more in touch with certain population’s needs and things like that. I would say there’s definitely a gap and we’ve still got work to go towards, but we’ve got some great tools to try and help lead that conversation.

Genevieve: From your perspective as an HR manager, is it still the case that some people are using a sort of an old template for work that’s based on my own assumptions about work? Do you say that?

Lauren: I think it’s a very interesting point and, yes, industrial tools will take us so far but there are certain assumptions that are in place. We are trying to change a lot of these workplace assumptions and there are very simple things that we’re still doing, and in a lot of places, they’re using template wording recruitment advertising that may be more gendered one way or the other. We also have lots of other different perceptions around what standard business hours and contact looks like. Again, that will impact on the ability for women to participate as fully as men.

Genevieve: Elizabeth, let’s unpack some of these survey results a little. Your work shows that while they were strong results for women wanting their jobs to be well paid and interesting, in fact, those weren’t the top attributes. What topped the list of attributes for what women want out of their workplaces?

Elizabeth: This was very interesting. I guess our expectation was that pay might be the thing that they want most out of their work or that matters a lot, but what we found, the two things that women say matters a lot to them in their work is firstly, having a job in which they’re treated with respect, and secondly, having a secure job. 80% of our respondents in our nationally representative sample of young women said that these were the two things that mattered a lot, 80% of them said that.

Genevieve: Just talk to me about those two things, respect, and security the other one. What were women articulating there? What do they mean by those two qualities?

Elizabeth: Definitely respect is a tough thing to kind of quantify, isn’t it? But as we went through the results from other parts of the survey, there’s certainly some correlation between respect and the experience of sexual harassment; that’s certainly a signifier of disrespect. One in 10 report, or 10% of women had reported they experienced sexual harassment in their workplace.

But I think there were some more interesting, more subtle and sophisticated results that came through. We found that young women’s aspirations for respect within their workplace are often not met. Only two-thirds reported that they were treated with respect by their current manager, and around half said that they received adequate recognition and felt valued at work. Again, recognition and valued at work, they’re kind of parts of respect, they speak to respect. We found that less than half said that their manager asked for their input into important workplace issues.

They all talk to us, they tell us a little bit about the way in which respect does, and in this case, doesn’t play out in their workplace; sexual harassment being the most extreme form. The thing that we found interesting in a lot of the results was that respect and being treated equally at work or felt that they were being treated equally with men in terms of career, promotion, prospects, et cetera like that, wasn’t just as hard things but it was like this continuum from very kind of hard-line criminal activity in the form of sexual harassment in the workplace, but right through the way in which they work. Just little things that indicated that they weren’t being treated with respect.

This came out in our qualitative research. A lot of women reflected on the way in which they dress, that they could moderate their dress in order to garner more respect, more equality in the workplace, or to reduce it. Some people talked about the way they cut their hair, the kinds of clothing they worked, even whether they had rings on or not, or signifiers of family relationships were also very important to the level of respect they received in the workplace.

The thing that comes out in our survey in the qualitative data when we put together is that there is this interesting nuanced continuum around respect and that workplace culture is a really important predictor of women’s experience of respect or not. There are really important things that need to change there in order to have male and female members of staff being treated equally, having the same kind of opportunities for training, for promotion, for senior positions, et cetera.

Genevieve: Lauren, respect is a really interesting one for I think exactly the reasons that Elizabeth has just touched on because it goes to the kind of culture that you build in a workplace. I’m interested in whether you’ve seen situations where women are not treated with respect across the spectrum. Certainly, as Elizabeth said, there’s that extreme level where it’s about out-and-out harassment and prejudice, but also many, many smaller illustrations of women not receiving the level of respect that they would expect given their experience or their contribution to the workplace.

Lauren: Look, it definitely is something that I have seen across multiple organisations. I definitely had experienced firsthand myself in prior organisations as well. That the way you dress, the way you look, it certainly influences. I think the hard part is when you’re building a culture and developing values in the workplace, everyone brings their own bias to the table. They aren’t always aware of exactly what those biases are and how that influences their decisions. Sometimes it’s completely unintentional. When I’ve had to have difficult conversations and bring that to people’s attention, they respond quite well. Then you will have others who refuse to say that what they’re doing is wrong and it gets a lot more difficult.

Most organisations have policies and tools to indicate certain behaviors that are expected, codes of conduct, for example, but they don’t always prevent people’s perceptions coming out a certain way. When we’re looking at staffing matters, we are always looking at, will they perceive it in a certain way? We then need to be aware of how that perception is being received.

Genevieve: Elizabeth, interestingly in your findings, less than half of all women said they had the capacity to be heard and have an influence at work. But it does seem that we’re an interesting kind of halfway house where many of the focus group respondents reported that they felt their employers tried to show that they were listening, but didn’t necessarily put that into practice.

Elizabeth: [laughs] This is tricky, isn’t it? In so many of our workplaces, there are formal policies and management seeks to follow those and yet workers don’t experience them in the way that they may be intended or experience them as just a formality rather than a substantive change. That response came through very clearly in the qualitative interviews where the women we spoke to, they’re not silly, they can see what management is trying to do, the way they’re trying to tick off on certain things, but on the ground reality, day to day is quite different and it’s very hard to shift.

Genevieve: Lauren, women have a right to request workplace flexibility related to family roles and that’s within the National Employment Standards. If women don’t feel heard, then they may not feel confident to ask for that flexibility. These are often the points where there is a real sense of conflict in the workplace. How do you approach a request for flexible work hours and flexible practice?

Lauren: I think it’s really important to reflect upon the industrial tools that are there. The National Employment Standards are great. If you’re a large organisation, you’ve got an enterprise agreement. Requests for flexibility are generally detailed a lot more in those tools. However, a lot of it does come back to the organisation, their size, and therefore their capacity to actually fulfill requests.

I found, in my personal experiences, a lot of organisations want to, but it gets too hard or it’s too expensive or that there is a real impact on business continuity. Balancing that can be sometimes, I suppose, stretching the ideas out of the box. It’s not always something that both parties come to constructively. It is sometimes, from my experience, I’ve seen women coming in and not presenting anything constructively so that I can develop an outcome for them. Then vice versa, I’ve had a lot of managers who have turned around and refused to say that there are possibilities in front of them.

It’s quite a difficult one. I think Fair Work in particular at the moment has a couple of cases going through with it. They’re looking at what just nonlinear job share or flexible arrangements look like. I think the outcomes from some of those cases will help us really develop conversations within our workplaces.

Genevieve: Elizabeth, regrettably, one in 10 of the women you spoke with had been sexually harassed in the workplace. Some of this is just quite outrageous and lawyers told to prove they were more than a blue-eyed blonde, very direct comments about sexual attractiveness, quite shocking to read those comments. Sometimes from people in leadership positions who really should know better at the very least in terms of their legal and workplace obligations, but that’s still happening.

Elizabeth: The thing that we found surprising was that these kinds of attitudes were pervasive across the workplace spectrum, from very high-end professional skilled workplaces right through the middle and down to casual and short-term contract work with casual workers. They all reflected on cultures that allowed that to happen.

Genevieve: Elizabeth, on that. There was a moderate level of belief that workplaces were mostly gender-equal but only moderate, I think. A lot of reports though, about the niggling things, the structural inequalities that are not necessarily as obvious as direct harassment. What were the respondents talking about in relation to that?

Elizabeth: Oh, well, there were quite a lot of issues around– If we go to the question of flexibility, it was quite interesting. There was an expectation that women with children would be able to access and employers were quite open to changing working hours for women with family care responsibilities, but not very open to changing the conditions of work for those that had other reasons for wanting changes in their workplaces.

What came up there was a bit of tension between different groups of workers. Those who did not have children understood the needs of those with children to have flexibility, but there was a certain amount of resentment there. I think workplaces need to be really careful about this. One way of dealing with that is to be very clear that flexibility is available for everyone, men, women, those with family responsibilities, those who have other interests in their life, have at times in their lives when they need to seek that flexibility. They’re those constraints that were talked about quite a lot.

Genevieve: Lauren, I think this does go to one of the big issues around gender equality, that workplaces as we mentioned a moment ago, are still often built around work practices that suit male full-time workers well, but not so much women with caring roles, especially women with children. But it can be quite hard to make employers realize that practices that seem on the face of it completely straightforward can actually be discriminatory because women are so much less likely to be able to work in a successful ongoing sense within those structures.

Lauren: It’s very true. In terms of changing those situations, you’re really looking at the culture, the values, the diversity within your leadership group to really help progress these conversations. A simple phrase that I find really helpful is relative to opportunity. Relative to opportunity, are they eligible for that promotion regardless of who they are and what responsibilities have had in their life.

There are many small and large things organisations can do. Recently, I came across an example where there’s a digital strategy put in place by a section of the Boston Consulting Group where they, outside of work hours actually set up a digital alert saying, “Do you really want to send this email outside of work hours?” Just to, I suppose, emphasize it and remind people that just because they want to work or wish to do those hours, not everyone can. It’s a bit of a nudge that’s really helped push along the conversation in their workplace.

Alternatively, the bigger you are, the bigger you need to think. There are really big programs of change out there. You’re looking at women in leadership, mentoring, diversity benchmarking, and there are lots of other pilot projects. In Australia at the moment, we have one called Science in Australia Gender Equity Pilot Project, which aims to tackle gender diversity within STEM disciplines in tertiary institutions.

Again, we have to do a lot of reviewing, a lot of assessing and really look at how we can help inform and guide these processes to get them to influence those around them.

Elizabeth: Can I just speak to the nature of the labor market in terms of structural issues? The interaction between men and women in the Australian Labor Market. We’ve got a male breadwinner model that’s shifted over time to a one and a half breadwinner model where you have the classic cases your male full-time worker and your half-time female worker.

What we’ve really picked up in our study is that there’s a shift afoot amongst young women. Remember our study was of 16 to 40-year-old women. What we see here is a group of women who are more educated than ever, they are job-focused, they are job-ready, they are ambitious and they want flexibility with security. The old kind of part-time job on the side, which leads you down the mummy track is not cutting it with the women that we spoke to.

Firstly, they expect to work like men. They expect to work for many years to have a long working life. About two-thirds of all the women we interviewed expected to work beyond 60 years of age. This is very much a male pattern or expectation. But they want jobs in which they get the flexibility they need to do the other things in their lives. They do not want to trade off children or family and career. They want high-quality decent jobs in which they can still be promoted, and that are secure. This is a real challenge, I think, to the Australian Labor Market, which tends to have good jobs and the casual short-term and flexible work, that kind of, she is off to the side.

Men who are encouraged to be engaged in flexibility, they’re very aware of the costs of seeking flexible work. What we see in our study is this very strong expectation for a good job with some permanency that gives them access to training, the capacity to progress their careers, while being flexible. I think this is a real shift.

Genevieve: That’s a really interesting comment. You were nodding along with that, Lauren, because I think Elizabeth making a really important point there that it’s no longer good enough to say, “Look, I’ll just work a couple of days a week and it doesn’t really matter much what I do.” People want to have their careers and the full benefits for them of those careers. while also enjoying flexibility. I guess the payoff if you can work that in your workplace, is unlocking the full potential of your women employees.

Lauren: Absolutely, I have had conversations with many, many managers recommending that they don’t just hire someone to be a person in the face. It’s about finding the right person, regardless of their availability and whether or not that’s a full-time job that you can only fill three and a half days a week. Because they are the best person for the job and you’re just going to have to find other solutions or really looking at other ways of breaking roles down.

As I said before, nonlinear options are becoming more prevalent, and it’s really making us reevaluate what our roles look like within the workforce. I think we get so much more from women who feel supported, they perform better, their productivity is greater and they just achieve so much more within their teams and help their teams achieve greater things as well. Having not the stress to worry about the juggling act or having to, I suppose, sacrifice something they want personally for themselves, you just see a complete change in the way that they approach work.

Genevieve: Elizabeth, optimally, that’s what happens. You’ve got someone who is in the workplace who is being treated with respect, who’s got the flexibility they want and the opportunity to continue with their career in a really meaningful and productive way. But the sense I get from your report is that while we’re making progress, without doubt, many Australian women still feel that there’s a way to go before their workplaces meet those needs and aspirations fully. Is that how you’re reading this?

Elizabeth: Oh yes, our research definitely points to very clear gaps between women’s experience and their expectations; what’s going to lead the kinds of things that are going to produce future success at work. We’ve got some really significant gaps around flexibility, around job security.

Again, this speaks to the broader Australian labor market. Only 19% of our sample were on casual contracts. Nine out of 10 said that insecurity was a really big deal. There’s a lot of professional women that are being shifted onto short-term contracts. This has all kinds of negative implications for both career planning, but also for just general well-being and economic security. You can’t buy a house, they find it difficult to plan for a family if that’s what they want. We’ve got this kind of real gap between the evolving conditions in the Australian labor market towards insecurity, and short-term contracts alongside a pervasive casualization. That really hits up against the need for the kinds of security that is required to progress and meet your goals.

You remember we’re talking about a cohort of young Australian women who are more educated and better educated than ever before. The potential loss or the current loss to the economy in terms of lost human capital is really significant. The government acknowledges this and talks about the trillions of dollars that are lost in the gross national product as a result of women’s low labor force participation.

Genevieve: Lauren, what’s the call for you that comes out of that? How do you want to respond as an HR professional to these findings?

Lauren: I think it really confirms the notion that we need to keep the conversation and the different educational activities alive when it comes to diversity in the workplace. Particularly, because obviously, when we look at diversity, it is more than just male and female. But I think it is a starting point, and it certainly will help us across the board if we can help our executives and leaders see the advantages of a diverse workforce so that we can win them over to become our champions to lead changes within their organisation and influence those around them.

Elizabeth: Genevieve, I just want to speak there to the issue of cultural diversity, because certainly, the results of the work that we’ve done showed that young women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are more vulnerable to the gaps and traps than those who do not self-identify as from cultural and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Given that we’re a highly diverse population, and that young women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are coming into and are in our workplaces, we need to be really conscious of addressing the kinds of inequalities and the kinds of disrespect that they face in particular.

Genevieve: Thank you both very much, Dr. Elizabeth Hill and Lauren Sayers. Many thanks again for being part of our podcast.

Elizabeth: It’s a pleasure.


Genevieve: Thanks for your time too. I’m Genevieve Jacobs, we’ve been discussing what women really want in the workplace with Dr. Elizabeth Hill and Lauren Sayers. Dr. Hill is the co-author of the landmark Women and the Future of Work Report, which comes out of the University of Sydney Business School. 

Search for the link to read the report online. It is fascinating if sometimes sobering reading. Look for us online too at We have a series of conversations with HR people, and those from the legal field about current issues in HR and employment. If you’d like to ask some questions, suggest an idea or perhaps offer yourself up as talent for the series, we’d love to hear from you. Thanks for being with me.

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